Last year, the Ayers Foundation Scholarship Program funded $1.4 million in scholarships for students in Tennessee’s rural counties of Decatur, Henderson, Perry and Unicoi. And college counselors working for the Foundation secured another $6 million. The mission of Jim and Janet Ayers, the foundation’s founders, is to level the playing field for students in these rural communities by providing educational opportunities those students would never otherwise have. Since its inception in 1999, more than 4,300 students have been positively impacted by the Ayers Foundation Scholarship Program. It is with great pleasure that we introduce the forces behind the Foundation, Jim and Janet Ayers.
Why is this initiative something you are passionate about and willing to fund?
Jim: Growing up in rural West Tennessee, I knew the key to having any kind of success was going to depend on education. It is something my parents were very passionate about. If you look at a lot of rural counties in Tennessee, or anywhere else in the United States for that matter, you find that many of the opportunities that used to exist 40 or 50 years ago are gone. I’m talking about factory jobs that didn’t require a high school diploma or a farm operation large enough to accommodate an extended family.
As I began to be successful in my career, I kept looking at my home county, Decatur. A lot of the factory jobs were gone, high school graduation rates were low, and not nearly enough young people were getting a diploma and going on to college.
So, in 1999, I started The Ayers Foundation with a goal of helping students and families think about post-secondary education by removing one of the barriers: funding.
I felt that, if we could get more students to graduate from high school and then get additional education, whether it was four-year college, community college or state technical college, we’d be helping those families and we’d be helping my county attract new jobs because we would have a more educated workforce.
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Since its inception in 1999, The Ayers Foundation Scholars Program has been quite effective in getting kids from rural Tennessee into post-secondary education. Can you elaborate on the Foundation’s success?
Jim: We keep close track of the program to make sure we’re being as effective as we can be. When we started, about 22 percent of the graduates at Scotts Hill High School went on to college. Last year, 88 percent of Scotts Hill High School graduates went on to some kind of post-secondary education.
Those kinds of increases show up at each of the five high schools we support.
To date, we have more than 1,300 scholars who have attained a college degree, vocational or technical certificate, or diploma.
Janet: We just recently expanded the program to my home county of Unicoi. The baseline when we started in 2016 was 61 percent of high school graduates going on to post-secondary education. That number has already jumped to 86 percent.
Students have enrolled in more than 99 colleges and universities across 25 states. Most of our students go to colleges near their homes, like University of Tennessee-Martin, University of Memphis, East Tennessee State University and Jackson State Community College. But we have had a few go on to college at places like Dartmouth, Vanderbilt and Yale.
Our counselors have done a wonderful job identifying other scholarships and grants for our students. Last year, the foundation funded about $1.4 million, and our counselors secured another $6 million, or $4.26 for every dollar we contributed.
Clearly the populations you serve in Decatur, Henderson, Perry and Unicoi counties have many challenges, from lack of educational opportunities to eroding jobs in the rural areas of Tennessee. Is there something in your personal backgrounds that causes you to be more empathetic to these residents?
Jim: I think we all feel a special responsibility to our hometowns. When I started the foundation, I knew it would work. But, I thought the best place to start it was a place I knew well, and that was Decatur County. It just made sense to me that, being in a position to help others, starting with the friends and families I grew up with, was the way to go.
Janet: My personal faith has guided me throughout my life. There is one passage in the scripture which says: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain … Commend them to do good, to be rich in good deeds and to be generous and willing to share …”
Being rich in good deeds is what differentiates a person from being successful and being significant. The author Bob Buford talks about being significant in one’s life. To me, Jim is the best example I know of moving from success to significance.
I think everyone has the desire to do something to make the world a better place. And certainly, when you look out across the entire globe, there is a lot of need. So much that it can be kind of overwhelming. When you start local, you have the benefit of knowing the problem and the people. And you have the satisfaction of paying it forward as a thank you for those who helped you along the way.
Can you share a story of a family or individual who was the recipient of Ayers Scholarship Foundation Program funds and the impact it had on their lives? Perhaps, a life-changing occurrence?
Jim: There are thousands of stories, but I think the measurable impact is what the program has done for the communities it serves.
These counties have a better-educated workforce. That means they can attract more jobs, which means more opportunities for those students to come back home to when they graduate. And seeing the value of education in their personal lives means they see the value of education in the health of their communities, which translates into support for their schools when they begin to raise families.
So, in that way, success breeds further success, and the lives of an entire community are changed.
Certainly in the communities you serve, many residents have suffered great hardships. What advice would you offer to people who have lost their jobs or find themselves not able to be independent either for health reasons or for circumstances beyond their control?
Jim: If you take my home county, Decatur, over the course of my lifetime so far, you can see that the changing economy has provided opportunities for some and challenges for others. The foundation was created to help lift everyone up by creating opportunities for young people to continue their educations.
And, in addition to the foundation, I have provided support to any number of other causes, including medical research and local hospitals. Just a few years ago, we were able to get a four-year nursing program started at the University of Tennessee-Martin Parsons Campus.
For the individual facing trying times, I think the hardest thing to overcome is the feeling of helplessness. I think you have to continue to find small ways to feel productive and relevant, and to trust in the compassion of others.
Janet: My first career out of college was in the nursing home business. We worked with people who were no longer able to be as independent as they had been, for whatever reason. I learned the importance of providing assistance while allowing a person their dignity.
I would go back to the scripture verse of being “rich in good deeds.” We have an obligation to help those in need and to provide that help with compassion and respect.
From my understanding, the Ayers Scholarship Foundation Program funds other initiatives, including conservation and social welfare. Can you share with our readers an initiative that you are currently funding that is important to you?
Jim: The foundation is refining our focus more and more on educational initiatives, while many of our other philanthropic endeavors come personally. That includes funding for cancer research at Vanderbilt, support for local hospitals in West Tennessee and various conservation initiatives.
Janet: Aside from the Scholars program, we have been actively involved with Lipscomb University and the College of Education with the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation. The focus there is on improving teacher performance and student outcomes throughout the state with an emphasis on teacher and leader development in turnaround schools and rural school systems.
Also at Lipscomb is the Ayers Leadership Fellows program, now in its fourth year. The Fellows program provides opportunities for school leaders to earn an educational leadership master’s or educational specialist degree with administrative licensure.
One of your passions is collecting local Tennessee artists’ works, and many of the pieces can be found in a book called “The Art of Community.” When and why did you start collecting art?
Jim: When we decided to make Nashville the corporate headquarters for FirstBank in 2012, part of that decision included moving into new space on Commerce Street downtown.
We could have gone the standard route of putting some kind of corporate art on the walls. But FirstBank is a state bank and, more importantly, a community bank. So I wanted to do something special to celebrate our Tennessee roots and to show that we are serious when we say we invest back into our communities.
So, Janet and I pulled together some very knowledgeable friends in the art world and got a crash course in Tennessee art.
Janet: We spent months looking at all kinds of art created by Tennesseans or people with a connection to Tennessee. In the end, we selected some 200 pieces in different mediums representing 60 artists working in the state.
One of the paintings we purchased was from Memphis artist Jared Small. After looking at it more closely, Jim discovered the painting was inspired from a house that was on his paper route in 1962.
Even as we collected for the bank, we were collecting for ourselves, and I think the entire experience broadened our awareness and made us even more appreciative of this wonderful state that we call home.
Clearly, both of you love the South and are invested in so many initiatives you support through your foundation. What do you think makes the South a special place to call home?
Jim: I think most people believe their home or their region is the most special. For me, growing up in Tennessee, raising a family, starting a business and our philanthropic activities are all part of the investment we’ve made to make this a better place for those who come after us.
We’ve been fortunate to travel around the world, and I can tell you there is no place I’d rather be than this country – be it north, south, east or west.
Janet: The idea of home is very important to both of us. Our roots run very deep in this state. Our history is here: the history that came before us and the history we’ve made for ourselves.